10 Rules of Survival When Working With a Team and Planning a Client's Legacy

In order to guide clients and help them reach their philanthropic goals, you need to understand the inner-workings of the planning process. Below are 10 rules for survival you need to know before you begin working with philanthropic clients.

Rule 1: Always work as part of a team when the case is large and complex

When planning for a business owner who is concerned about legacy and having an impact – the total hours of mastery-level experience might be 40,000+ for a good team.

A financial planner or advisor needs to bring four things to a team: awareness of your limitations, respect for the achievements of your teammates, a willingness to defer to those who know more, and some element that no one else has. That extra element might be your mastery of a subset of the issues, rapport with the client or donor, expertise with a product, or your connection to a network of experts that you can bring into the case.

Rule 2: Recognize you could be sued

I always remind my students, America is a lawsuit happy country where anyone can sue for any reason. The lawsuit may not hold up in court, but operate on the assumption that anything you write or say can and will be held to account in a hostile setting. Your files, unless you are an attorney subject to client-attorney privilege, can be deposed.

So, how glib do you want to be? How many statements do you want to make, as opposed to "suggestions," queries, and points for consideration? How emphatic do you want to be in your recommendations when you have only limited access to the client's overall situation? These are all questions to consider when working with your clients.

Rule 3: Document, but document with care

A written record can be helpful to the client and provides a record of what you communicated if that is ever questioned. However, the most important thing in that piece of writing could be the disclaimer. Mine is as follows: "Phil Cubeta is not a tax or legal advisor. His work is limited to the unlicensed practice of the liberal arts. This memorandum is not tax or legal advice. For all such advice, clients must consult their own tax and legal advisors." While lighthearted, this writing explicitly disclaims areas in which I am not licensed to practice and am not competent at the ten-thousand-hour level. It also disclaims anything for which I could readily be sued.

Rule 4: Define your area of practice and the capacity in which you are acting

What is your legal standing here? Are you licensed to practice law? Are you a CPA who can give tax advice? Are you licensed to sell financial products? Are you a registered investment advisor? If not, don't leave the impression that you are. You don't want the client calling years later, when everything has come apart, to say that he or she relied on you and that you are the one responsible since he or she was under the impression that you acted in that particular capacity where it all went so wrong. So, define what you do, while also defining what you don't do. Make sure the client knows, and that your humility is well documented.

Rule 5: Ground the liability on the person best qualified to accept it

If your Errors and Omissions insurance does not cover it, don't do it. Rely on, refer to, and defer to qualified advisors. Constantly reiterate to the client that he or she should seek and rely upon qualified professional advisors in law, accounting, tax, or whatever other specialty is required. Let these advisors be grateful for your referral and let them ground the liability in their ten-thousand hours of experience, in their capacity with their own E&O carrier.

Rule 6: Be a talent scout

You will not only survive but thrive and prosper if you read and collect excellent outlines from conferences, proceedings, and publications. Among the most important things about an excellent outline are the author's name and phone number and the date of the piece. The date should be reasonably current. You want to be able to see what is up-to-date and what is out-of-date, and to know that the writer knows the up-to-date facts. Therefore, the phone number is critical information. The person wrote the outline because he or she wants to be helpful, seeks recognition, and also wants business. Call the expert and find out how he or she works. Your relationship to experts is, perhaps, your greatest professional asset. Be mindful of the expert's time. Do not call unless you can generate live cases.

Rule 7: Make rain

Ten-thousand hours of practicing a deep but narrow skill can make a person "one of a kind" for the right client. Though how many prospects in a given city need a $450-an-hour attorney with 10,000 hours of expertise in, for example, using IRAs as charitable gifts or Charitable Employee Stock Option Plans. Only a few cases every now and again call for this $450-an-hour expertise. And, where is the expert's head? Facing into a computer screen or a book, refreshing her knowledge. She is not out knocking on doors or making cold calls. She may not even be allowed to do that; it might be considered unprofessional under bar canons. She may not feel that even advertising is appropriate. So, she writes outlines, gives speeches, cultivates key advisors in town, and waits for the phone to ring.

Rule 8: Defer gracefully

When walking into an expert's office with a client, defer to their expertise on the topic you came to them for. Treat the expert as your potential ally, the attorney with 10,000 hours of expertise that you can learn from. In turn, the attorney wants you as a referral source and to keep you involved in the process. Be there to make suggestions, not recommendations, and defer with grace.

Rule 9: Listen and play back what you think you hear

At times, what you may find is that the person with thousands of hours worth of technical skill lacks the ability to communicate clearly with laypersons. He or she may be brilliant but the client is lost, and the solution suggested is not in line with the goals that the client may have discussed with you.

When you sense that the conversation has shifted from what the client wants or when you sense that the attorney has lost the client in a thicket of words, slow it down and replay it. Stay with facts and goals, then ask for a replay of the attorney's recommendations.

Rule 10: Be the "synthesizing generalist"

The expert is like the person who hacks skillfully through a rainforest to chart a highway. The expert makes rapid progress, effectively and efficiently, in accordance with the best practices of building a highway. Behind the expert come the bulldozers, and the road is built at a good pace. The synthesizing generalist is the marginal character, whose machete is a bit dull, who can dig, but not well, and who can run a paving machine, but only on level ground. However, the synthesizing generalist is the one who climbs the tree and says, "Hey, we are going in the wrong direction!" and without this guidance, the expert could wind up building a road to nowhere.

As a synthesizing generalist, you play a key role in eliciting client facts, eliciting client goals in a deep way, and maintaining client rapport.

Next step: A higher level of service to your clients, and community

The most successful advisors in charitable planning do not just want to make a living, they also want to make a difference. That is what motivates and drives the Chartered Advisor in Philanthropy® (CAP®) curriculum at The American College of Financial Services. The philanthropy planning sector is an underserved and equally complex market that requires special training and expertise. For more information about receiving your CAP® designation and becoming a member of the philanthropic community, visit us here.